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Tag Archive: Retro review


Review by C.J. Bunce

When you think of the 1985 movie Fletch, you probably think of Chevy Chase’ s humorous, over-the-top take on undercover reporter I.M. Fletcher.  But Fletch the movie was only loosely based on the award-winning mystery novels by author Gregory Mcdonald.  Mcdonald wrote dozens of novels before his death in 2008.  One of those is Snatched, a kidnapping story reprinted this year for the first time in 30 years by Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime imprint.

Originally published in 1978 as Who Took Toby Rinaldi? in the U.S. and Snatched in the UK, Mcdonald crafted a thriller about the botched kidnapping of the eight-year-old son of a Persian Gulf region ambassador to the United Nations as he readies a proposal with global impact before the U.N.  The proposal itself is a bit of a Pelican Brief MacGuffin, but the real action follows a thug named Spike as he hides the abducted boy, Toby Rinaldi.  Toby was on his way to meet his mother Christina for a visit to a Disneyland-esque theme park in California called Fantazyland.  Key to the action and tension are the efforts and setbacks faced by Christina as she attempts to catch the kidnapper, despite her husband’s foreign security squad in the U.S. trying to keep the kidnapping secret.

   

Snatched is a great read.  Its slow, simmering pace reflects nailbiters of the 1960s-1970s like The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Charley Varrick, Magnum Force, or Bullitt.  Many of the characters are intentionally frustrating.  The characters are frustrated, and that is channeled to the reader page after page.  Toby’s father is caught between the direct demands of his king and responsibility to family.  The political factions behind the kidnapping plot–a small group of tried and tested, denizen mercenaries whose failure to communicate and coordinate because of their own personal distractions cause them to trip over each other as they attempt what might otherwise be the simplest of crimes.  Despite Mcdonald’s Fletch character translated to the big screen, make no mistake:  Snatched is not a comedy.  It’s also low on violence, other than a little boy in jeopardy as the main plot point, which is handled deftly by Mcdonald.

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sinner-man-cover

When Elmore Leonard said that Laurence Block grabs the reader and never lets go, he showed he had Block figured out.  Apparently that applies back to Block’s first crime novel, just released for the first time under Block’s name after more than 50 years.  Sinner Man is one of the rare books sought out and released by Hard Case Crime, known for its publishing of never before seen, shelved novels of well-known writers and reprints of out-of-print novels from decades past.  As with Michael Crichton’s and Gore Vidal’s early lost novels, reviewed previously here at borg.com, Block knew how to craft a compelling noir piece from the start of his career.

Sinner Man follows an insurance salesman, a hothead, who accidentally kills his wife during an argument.  Instead of turning himself in and facing a manslaughter charge, he plots out a plan to create a new life, in modern parlance “off the grid.”  What will keep readers glued to the story is the path he takes, the methodical “how to” guide Block lays out for anyone who wants to disappear in the Northeast U.S. circa 1950s.  As he discusses in an afterword, some of the details allowed a criminal to vanish more simply then compared to today, which almost begs for a modern-day update.  Readers will not be able to avoid adapting and contrasting his plan to today’s world as the story develops.  According to Block, the title Sinner Man was derived from the spiritual song about a man who could not escape no matter where he turned.

Block’s anti-hero ends up working for a small city mob network.  His lead is a typical bad man with tastes for booze and good clothes.  Readers will not be cheering for him as much as wondering when and how he is going to “get what’s coming to him” if the classic Crime Does Not Pay lesson from pulp stories rings true.  He’s a thug, he’s violent toward women, and becomes a killer for hire.  The mob here isn’t the kind you’d find in the Godfather, but more like the lower echelon heavies in Casino and Goodfellas.

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Michael Keaton in Jackie Brown

With the popularity of Quentin Tarentino’s other writing and directing achievements, Jackie Brown tends to get short shrift. Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, it’s the exception in Tarentino’s film arsenal where the story concept didn’t originate from the mind of Tarentino.  Yet there are enough changes made by him to make 1997’s Jackie Brown a standout film for the heralded director, and it may very well be his best all-around film, full of style, suspense, and pulp cool.

The prime reason for that is his handling of the character of Jackie Brown as a tough, no-nonsense survivor, and Pam Grier’s ability to fill those shoes perfectly.  The cast of top Hollywood stars and character actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda, and the great Robert Forster fills in the remaining blanks. But you may forget the key role played by Michael Keaton as straight-shooter cop Ray Nicolette.

Michael Keaton as Ray Nickolette

Keaton played a supporting role in a previous ensemble cast effort under a popular director, Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, as Dogberry, the closest on-screen attempt at showing what Charles Schulz’s Pigpen would look like all grown up.  Part of the conceit of Keaton’s new film Birdman is the intended irony of a washed-up actor that once played a popular character called Birdman, and the obvious comparisons to Keaton’s Batman and lack of promising acting gigs in recent memory.

In fact Keaton has always been a working actor plugging away at film roles through the years and Dogberry, along with Jackie Brown’s Ray, may have helped fuel the vibe since Keaton was either content to join these ensemble casts with small parts, or that was all he was offered.  Either way, these weren’t major leading man roles as he has found with Birdman.

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Michael Keaton in Mr Mom

Classic comedy from the 1980s includes some of the most re-watchable films.  There are the perennial favorites from the creative talents of the original Saturday Night Live cast, like Caddyshack, The Blues Brothes, Stripes, and Ghostbusters.  Many of the best were written by John Hughes, with National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles among them.  But while these movies can be found all the time on cable, one of Hughes’ best comedy classics inexplicably rarely surfaces.  That film is Mr. Mom, the movie that solidified Michael Keaton as not only a comedic actor audiences loved, but a leading man who could hold his own as top name on the marquee.  The physical comedy Keaton uses in his latest film Birdman has its roots in Keaton’s performance as Mr. Mom’s put-upon co-worker, husband and dad.  In fact early on Keaton recognized his own talent at physical comedy, taking the stage surname Keaton because of Buster Keaton’s similar talents.

Keaton plays Jack Butler, recently laid-off from his Detroit auto plant job.  When he can’t find work, wife Caroline, played by Teri Garr, decides to dust off her marketing degree and take a job working for Ron Richardson, played by Martin Mull.  Jack is laid off with co-workers including one played by Christopher Lloyd, and his boss is played by Jeffrey Tambor.  Ann Jillian plays a single neighbor out to land the homebound Jack, and Carolyn Seymour, who will be familiar to Star Trek fans for her humorous guest appearances, is one of the people who works for Ron (and despises Caroline).  Until this year you could have said each of these actors was at the top of their game in Mr. Mom, although the newfound accolades for both Keaton and Tambor seem to qualify that assertion.

Garr Mull and Keaton in Mr Mom

If you saw Mr. Mom in theaters upon its release in 1983, you may be surprised when re-watching the film 30 years later how many lines you remember.  It’s not quotable to the extent of Caddyshack, but you may find you can quote lines along with the film.  Pop culture references to contemporary movies were a signature of Hughes long before Joss Whedon would perfect them in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Michael Keaton in Night Shift

In light of Michael Keaton’s Academy Award nomination for best actor in the new film Birdman, we’re launching Michael Keaton Week here at borg.com.  Last year Keaton played a dramatic role as a business executive trying to sell America on bipedal drone security and law enforcement that led to the creation of a well-known cyborg in the remake of RoboCop, reviewed here at borg.com.  Everyone first thinks of Keaton from his role as Batman in the original superhero film that re-launched modern superhero blockbusters.  Before that there was his over-the-top, ghost-with-the-most in Beetlejuice.  But how did he get here and what steps helped him become the beloved actor he is today?

Born Michael Douglas, he would use the stage name Michael Keaton on-screen in light of potential confusion with Academy Award-winning actor/producer Michael Douglas (Wall Street, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Coma, The China Syndrome, Romancing the Stone) and TV show host Mike Douglas (if Keaton wins this year for Birdman, he’ll be the second Michael Douglas to win the coveted prize).  The year 1982 was a perfect time for the entry of someone like Michael Keaton into popular culture.  A young Tom Hanks was on TV in Bosom Buddies and Robin William’s Mork & Mindy was in its final season–these kind of zany comedies were just what early 1980s audiences were after.

Michael Keaton Night Shift

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Now Wait for Last Year classic cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Now Wait for Last Year suffers from those chronic problems that plagued many of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels: Dick’s obsession with drug-induced fantasies and his misogyny that begins to grate on modern readers after only a few of his novels, despite a clever idea that could net a solid read if only Dick wasn’t his own worst enemy.

Now Wait for Last Year follows a doctor on future Earth who specializes in organ transplants that allow people to live for decades past their historic life expectancy.  He hates his wife and she hates him.  She stumbles into taking a drug that prompts an incurable addiction and then slips the drug to her husband as revenge.  And then they discover that drug has a side-effect: the right dose will make you travel back or forward–or even sideways–through time.  A new spin on time travel is the classic Dick sci-fi hook for this story.  The trouble is that Dick mishandles it–too many deus ex machina rescues, including more than one by a talking cab familiar to fans of Total Recall, as well as too many references to then-recent history, an ugly future and no redeeming characters.  The writer of some of the best science fiction stories of all time produced far better novels than this entry.

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Kermit in A Muppet Christmas Carol

By Elizabeth C. Bunce

Audiences have loved Charles Dickens’s yuletide ghost story, A Christmas Carol, for 171 years, and it’s been committed to film at least 50 times.  It’s hard to dispute the status of 1951’s Scrooge starring Alastair Sim, or surpass Patrick Stewart’s masterly performance as the cruel miser in the 1999 television adaptation.   But for annual, feel-good holiday fun, our money is on The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Released in 1992 and representing the first of several retellings produced by the zany puppets & crew, The Muppet Christmas Carol also boasts a strong human cast.  Most notable, of course, is Michael Caine (Batman Begins, Get Carter) as Ebenezer Scrooge, in a turn that is just the right balance of humbug and humor.

Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge

The Muppet version brings all the elements you expect from A Christmas Carol, from dead-as-a-doornail business partner Marley, to Tiny Tim asking God to bless us, everyone… but with wonderful Muppet twists.  All your favorite Muppets are here, as well, in their expected roles: Kermit the Frog as put-upon clerk Bob Cratchitt (with nephew Robin in the roll of Tim); Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchitt, naturally; and even 1990’s standard duo Gonzo and Rizzo, taking a meta-fiction approach as tour-guide-to-the-tale Charles Dickens and a skeptical sidekick.

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creature from black lagoon poster

Who is my favorite Universal Studios classic movie monster?  I have always answered The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  I first watched the web-footed and web-handed fellow with gills in 3D on local network television on one Friday night many years ago.  I am not sure cable TV was yet making its headway across the country, but the “creature feature” was something marketed for a few weeks over the summer.  The local CBS affiliate, if I recall correctly, teamed up with the local Hy-Vee grocery store to hand out those cardboard and vellum 3D glasses.  I knew early on that The Creature was the first and only one of the classic monsters filmed and shown in theaters in 3D back in 1954.  My trusty World Almanac told me it wasn’t the first 3D film released–that went to the African lion film Bwana Devil in 1952.

As part of my current quest to sample the best of 3D movies on Blu-ray, finding The Creature from the Black Lagoon on the very short list of released 3D films was a big win.  Back in 1997 in Seattle where basic DVDs were first released in a major U.S. market, I remember digging through a short box at the big Suncoast store but feeling similarly dismayed, until I noticed A Boy and His Dog among the early conversions to digital video.  The Creature is a great starting point for modern 3D, giving the current technology some historical context.

Creature in 3D

Thanks in large part to make-up guru Bud Westport’s incredible creature suit and mask, the film holds up as well as any modern classic.  In fact, viewing The Creature back to back with Predator 3D (reviewed here earlier this month), it’s surprising how similar the films are.  Take away the sci-fi intro to Predator and you have a jungle adventure with another otherworldly creature.  As with Predator 3D, the multi-layered jungle comes alive in The Creature, and the careful placement of actors onscreen gives a crystal clear dimensional image that doesn’t waver.  Better yet, you have to look hard to see The Creature’s air bubbles–mostly he swims for seemingly long stints underwater with no apparent breathing going on.  And let’s not forget both of these films are part of the horror genre–each character gets picked off one by one by the monster until only a few are left for a final life-or-death showdown.

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Jaws movie poster

ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE–On the Fourth of July weekend, you must include a summer blockbuster in your planning, and there’s not much better you could ask for than a Fourth of July screening of Jaws, which features a small coastal town in the days leading up to the holiday back in 1975.  Thirty-nine years later and the entire film still stands strong, dated only by some clothing of the locals, which–let’s face it–could still be the fashion in beach communities up and down both coasts.  This weekend the Alamo Drafthouse offered up the opportunity to see Jaws on the big screen again or for the first time.  Unlike screenings of some other classic films at other theaters, this screening had what looked like an original reel of Jaws with flickers and pops.  In an age of widely available, digitally-re-mastered cuts of classic movies like Jaws, it was surprisingly fun to see the film just as audiences would have seen it in 1975.

I first saw Jaws at the S.E. 14th Street Drive-in theater in its initial summer run.  I was about the age of Scheider’s youngest son in the movie.  Knowing I would fall asleep in the back seat likely before the film started, my folks hadn’t figured I would actually manage to see the entire introduction.  Luckily the film was darkly lit and I didn’t know what I was watching.  I took away no memory of the film beyond dark images of a girl swimming.  My sister didn’t fare as well, and what made the film the blockbuster it was sunk in with her–that great white shark keeping us all out of the water–a summer when beaches across the country must have had lower attendances–and it certainly kept her away for a while.  Not having seen Jaws straight through in several years, but instead viewing it probably hundreds of times in bits and pieces over those intervening years, I couldn’t have been happier that it was as good as I remembered and even more engaging on the big screen.

Jaws crew

Take star Roy Scheider, for instance.  Today you might cast Eddie McClintock or Colin Ferguson for his role as everyman on his first gig as new chief of police in a new town.  Scheider has many funny lines to break the tension, beyond the many quotable lines.  His wife played by Lorraine Gary carries on as the supporter of her husband perfectly.  Richard Dreyfuss is, of course, Richard Dreyfuss, always holding back a laugh even in the most desperate of circumstances.  Jaws is without a doubt Dreyfuss’s best role–a great feat considering his many big roles over the decades (American Graffiti, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goodbye Girl, Always, The American President, R.E.D.).

But what is no surprise is the powerhouse performance by character actor Robert Shaw as Quint.  I think this was the first time I ever intended to order a drink or snack from the dine-in seating theater but was so transfixed, mostly due to Shaw, that I walked out having never ordered anything.  It’s not just the Indianapolis speech he is known so well for.  There’s also his introduction at the city council meeting.  His mouthiness when his boat is being loaded to go after the shark.  His taking the time to teach the chief how to tie knots on the boat.  Shaw, who died young resulting from problems with alcoholism, created the quintessential (pun intended) old salty sea captain in Jaws.  His performance is full of nuance.  Sure, he is part Captain Ahab, but he is so much more.

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From Russia with Love book cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

The fifth James Bond novel, From Russia with Love, was a popular mainstream read back in 1957.  One of President Kennedy’s favorite books, the film adaptation would be the last movie he would ever see before that fateful trip to Dallas in 1963.  From Russia with Love reflects a lot about the Cold War era and Europe in the late 1950s.  As part of the James Bond universe it is a rare faithful adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel.  And, unlike some of Fleming’s Bond novels that fail to hold up to modern sensibilities, including The Spy Who Loved Me (previously reviewed here) and Live and Let Die (reviewed here), From Russia with Love is full of political intrigue and spymastery, putting it toward the top of Bond’s adventures along with the novels Casino Royale and Moonraker.

A nice twist is the admission within the story of the more ludicrous elements, as just that, ludicrous.  Namely, the plot focuses on a sort of off-the-book operation by SMERSH (SPECTRE in the film, the Soviet secret spy program), and its efforts to kill Bond and exact revenge on MI6 through an elaborate sex scandal plot, all for the deaths by Bond of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and Hugo Drax in Moonraker and other bruises to the Soviets.  Its means?  By assigning a Soviet cipher clerk (think Bletchley Circle) named Tatiana Romanova, stationed in a consulate in Istanbul, to pretend to fall in love with a photo of Bond and attempt defection to Great Britain.  The catch?  Only James Bond can collect her in Turkey and bring her over to the Brits.  Dangling the carrot of a Spektor code breaker machine that the Brits have never been able to get their hands on, she’s SMERSH’s best bet to finally bring Bond to his knees.  Thankfully, MI6 doesn’t blindly jump right in–MI6 sees it as an obvious trap, yet the value of the code breaker is too good to pass up, and it’s just the type of mission Bond is good at.

From Russia with Love classic pulp cover

There’s more to From Russia with Love than the typical Bond novel.  Sure, there’s the suave spy, the womanizing, the “Bond girl,” the martinis.  There’s also the exotic locations.  You’ll get the feel you’ve been to Istanbul, to the “stinking streets” of the city, to the Soviet consulate, the SMERSH training grounds, to a party and fight and bombing at a Gypsy village, and a ride on that famous train, the Orient Express.

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